Monday, March 24, 2008

Is this peak oil?

Oil recently hit $110/barrel. The value of the dollar has dropped compared to other currencies. Housing prices are falling, and the U.S. economy may be going into recession.

At the beginning of this decade, I became aware of the idea of peak oil, or Hubbert's Peak, and was a little obsessed with it for a year or two in 2004-05. Since then, I've become more of an optimist than I was in those days. In the long run, I think we can do better with renewables (mainly solar) than we have done with oil.

I used to follow, but I was put off by the doomer point of view there. Now I follow Peak Oil Debunked casually. But really, I'm not stuck on oil any more. I'm more interested in hearing what people like Jamais Cascio or Bruce Sterling have to say about the future than I am about the future of petroleum.

Lately, the future looks a little more bleak than it did a few years ago, mainly because of the state of the U.S. economy. But I don't think this is all about peak oil. Rather, we are feeling the effects of bad decisions our government made in the beginning of this decade. The cost of the Iraq war has been estimated at three trillion dollars, and we're bound to feel the effects of that cost in our standard of living. As for $110/barrel oil, I barely notice the cost of gasoline. I hear that prices for things are going up, but I don't notice runaway inflation when I shop. California's economy is adding jobs. Apparently, tech is still strong, despite troubles in the rest of the U.S. economy.

Anyway, getting back to the title of this post: are we seeing the first effects of peak oil? If not, when will we start to notice them? I tend to think that the effects of peak oil won't be all bad. In fact, in the long run (long run being defined as 30-50 years from now, at which time not all of us will be dead), the effects will be good, because peak oil will force us to develop solar, which we should have been doing all along.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Jamais Cascio's Futures Meme

Jamais Cascio writes, at Open The Future,
# What do you fear we'll likely see in fifteen years?
# What do you hope we'll likely see in fifteen years?
# What do you think you'll be doing in fifteen years?
Fear: Cascio's early climate tipping point plus peak oil really throws the economy into a stagflationary cycle, just like in the 1970s.

Economic hardship will make us think up really clever ways to conserve and do more with less energy. Also, I'll enjoy nifty gadgets that will make an iPhone look about as advanced as the original Walkman looks today.

I'll likely be programming itty bitty networked devices, in a language far more polished and intuitive and fun than Ruby on Rails. Also, instead of wrangling toddlers and babies, I'll be wrangling teenagers.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Cooling your hand instead of your house

Interesting article in Stanford Magazine about a technology that applies cooling and a vacuum to the hand. It allows the body to recover more quickly from heat-related exhaustion and improves performance. This technology was also mentioned in the Boing Boing Boing podcast the other day when they talked to Noah Shachtman, who writes on military issues for Wired's military blog Danger Room. The technology can also be used for heating. If you heat up the hand, the core body temperature heats up and a person is less vulnerable to hypothermia. Shachtman described an amazing scene in which he sat in a tub of 40 degree ice water for 70 minutes and felt fine!

Anyway, the people working on this technology have been thinking of it in terms of military and athletic applications -- basically performance enhancement for jocks and fighters. But, tree hugger that I am, I was thinking that this could be a solution to global warming! We use so much energy heating and cooling our houses -- we could remain comfortable merely by heating and cooling our hands! The energy savings would be huge -- presumably comparable to the difference in volume cooled, which is several orders of magnitude.

One thing I wonder -- why doesn't it work to just grab a cold can of beer? Next time there's a heat wave, I'll give that a try. :)

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Does power skip a generation?

According to thereisnospoon at Daily Kos, Howard Dean said, "This is not an individual effort: this is the handoff between the baby boomers and the millenial generation."

What about generation X, the core of the workforce? Don't we thirteeners get our chance at power? There are tens of millions of voters between the ages of 25 and 45, many of us parents, homeowners, and workers. Ignoring us is not a wise political strategy. Power cannot simply be handed off (like a baton in a relay) from the middle aged to the very young. This race cannot be won without us.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Another reason why people buy SUVs

As the father of a five-and-a-half month old, I have become aware of something that I had only a dim consciousness of before. This is the child safety seat. U.S. law requires that children sit in special seats until . . . well, basically until they're old enough to drive themselves. Our son just grew out of his tiny infant seat so we bought one that will last until he weighs 65 pounds (in my family one generally reaches this landmark around age 11).

So, what's my point? We're having a heck of a time fitting this super-sized child seat into our 2001 Honda Civic, a foor door sedan. Although the name "Honda Civic" conjures up an image of a tiny econobox, anyone who has tried to park this car on a San Francisco street will tell you that it is not a small car. Nonetheless, the seat doesn't fit behind the driver's seat if I have pushed it back far enough to accommodate my legs. Of course, this is fine with me because I don't like to drive anyway. We're not getting a bigger car -- my wife can drive. But I'm only 5'6"! What I'm getting at here is this: some SUV buyers may not be thinking, "Oh, I want an SUV because I hate nature and I want to pave the planet." Rather, the impetus to buy an SUV may be a simple car seat.

Here's another possible source of conservation from an unlikely place: if someone can design a quality child car seat (not just for infants but toddlers, too) that fits into a compact or mid-sized sedan, it could deter some SUV purchases.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A spirited debate

Criticism exercises the mind and helps a writer refine ideas. Several commenters have been kind enough to drop by and let me know what they think of my eleven point plan for eliminating the private automobile. Although not all of the comments have been phrased in the nicest possible language, I still appreciate the feedback. Rest assured that I will take your ideas into account as I revise my plan.

Some commenters seem to think that I intend to come over and literally take their cars away. Honestly, I have no desire to do this. Indeed, as a card-carrying anti-authoritarian, I think that legislating the car out of existence would be a really bad idea, too. Rather, I think the best approach is to subvert the car and auto culture, using technological innovation and consumer choice to convince people to abandon their cars voluntarily.

Several accused me of being a socialist, which I am not. Rather, I hope to promote new trends of thinking, better choices, greater efficiency, and a voluntary transition away from cars. Cars are inefficient and unsustainable in the long run. I think we can do better.

Joe at Big Ford Fan pointed out, "I love the rosey picture of the future that paint, but what about all those people who work for a living? Not everyone has a job that you can work at home."

This is an excellent point. What about people who work in manufacturing, in construction, or on farms? We're obviously not going to eliminate all commutes. However, there's a difference between not commuting alone in a private automobile and not commuting at all. Commuters should have more public transit options, including commuter rail for long distances and efficient bicycle-related (hybrid pedal/electric) vehicles for short hops. Rail lines can use a system like Caltrain's for integrating cycling and trains. My daily commute is over 40 miles each way, a combination of cycling and rail. As commuting becomes more inconvenient, people will move closer to work or work closer to home. Which would you rather have, an hour behind the wheel (or in a train) or another hour with your family?

Joe continues, "What about all the jobs lost in the Auto Industry? What about all the folks who work in those malls, what about the road crews?"

If the private automobile disappears, the people working in the auto industry can still build buses, trucks, trains, motorcycles, taxis, police cars, and fire engines. In addition, the auto industry can innovate and come up with new modes of transport that are more efficient than cars.

As for the people working in the malls, if they want to continue working in retail, they can work in shops downtown. I tend to think that the transition away from the auto will be good for the economy in general and that there will be lots of new job choices for people. As for those working on the road crews, their efforts can be diverted towards building the post-auto infrastructure: the rail system will grow and roads will still be needed for the many vehicles still remaining. Ultimately, I do think that less money will be spent on infrastructure. It is cheaper to support an efficient transport system than an inefficient one. A lot of government pork goes into maintaining and expanding the highways.

Joe concludes, "I'm sure futurist and socialist love the idea of small planned communities where nobody has to do more than contemplate their belly button, but the rest of us live in the real world. You watch too much Star Trek."

I addressed the "socialist" question above. As for the idea of "small planned communities," that's not really how I see it happening. I envision the reversion of suburbs into towns as a more natural process, taking place over many years. People will simply gravitate towards the center of economic activity as the suburbs decline.

Oh, and I don't watch much Star Trek, although Firefly was cool. Too bad it got cancelled!

Mike writes, "I'm just curious - how do you plan to fund these programs? Some more of that 'free government money'?"

If you look over my plan, you'll notice that actually, most of them are suggestions for private initiatives or grass-roots movements. Ideas 1, 8, 9, and 10 (self-guiding cars, exoskeletons, faster broadband, and e-commerce) would be innovations by private industry. Ideas 4 and 11 (anti-car PR campaign and neighborhood building) would be spontaneous movements and trends in society, although the PR campaign might be spearheaded by nonprofits. Idea 2, car sharing, could be promoted either by nonprofits or by private firms or clubs -- no government funds necessary.

As for the ideas that do involve the government, 3, 5, 6, and 7, only idea 7 (more public transit) would require increased government spending. Idea 3 (fewer freeways) means less spending, which should be popular with conservatives. Idea 5 (externalities) would be a complicated change in policy: I'm not sure of the implications do government revenue. However, much of it could be accomplished on a private level, through insurance premiums, for example. Idea 6 (higher taxes on petroleum) would actually raise revenue.

Nonetheless, I can definitely see why raising taxes on gasoline would be unpopular! For one thing, they are sales taxes, which are regressive. Perhaps they should be combined with some kind of negative income tax, like the one Republican president Richard Nixon proposed back in the 70s.

JG Halmayr at Ride makes some insightful comments. He points out that, "This is exactly what the industry is moving towards, eliminating the need to drive your car manually when a computer can do it for you." I'm aware of this trend and in fact I see it as working against car culture. The point of my plan is to make driving less desirable and to make other forms of transport more appealing.

There's a certain romance to the automobile. Advertisers exploit this mercilessly when they show a car speeding down an empty highway (often beautiful highway 1 here in California). However, a lot of this romance is tied up in the feeling of control and independence that you get when you're behind the wheel. If you give up control of your car so you can, "accomplish other things, such as work, playing videogames, watching a movie, reading a book, or surfing the internet," you're not in control any more. You might as well be riding on the train. Or what about the "pod cars" I mentioned, that link physically to form ad hoc trains? That combines the best of both worlds -- you gain the efficiency of shared transport while retaining the privacy of the private auto.

The other advantage to the development of computer guidance systems is that they make the roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Some people choose to drive instead of bicycling or walking because they feel vulnerable without a metal shell around them. If cars can't crash into you, you're a lot safer.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Eleven point plan for eliminating the private automobile

This post is a follow-up to the thread on called, "How to eliminate the private automobile." The thread takes as a premise that cars are viruses. The term "private automobile" is defined in this post by gg3.

  1. Invent self-guiding cars that can't crash into pedestrians, cyclists, and each other. Regulate auto speed with governors. Tie use of these technologies to insurance premiums. In the future, private autos may evolve into "pod cars" that link physically to form ad hoc trains.

    Result: you're not really driving any more. Driving becomes less appealing because motorists lose the feeling of control that comes from being behind the wheel. Safety is improved for pedestrians and cyclists.

  2. Expand car sharing programs (e.g. City Car Share) and make them more convenient. Car sharing is a step towards eliminating auto dependence entirely. Use RFID, GPS, and mobile phones to make sure shared cars are always available in convenient locations. Provide lockers where users can store child car seats, shopping bags, et cetera. Make a child car seat that's easier and quicker to install on the go.

    Result: take the "private" out of the private automobile. Participants share cars rather than owning them. People who use car sharing programs also use public transit more often than car owners.

  3. Stop expanding free highways. When traffic demands dictate the need for a new lane, build self-funding toll lanes for people who want to stay in their cars but get out of the traffic. Over time, change existing free highways and lanes to toll roads so that the highway system funds itself.

    Result: Lower highway spending removes a subsidy on driving, discouraging waste. For drivers in the disappearing free lanes, traffic worsens and driving becomes less attractive. For those in the toll lanes, driving becomes more expensive.

  4. Start a PR campaign to discourage automobile use. Mimic the anti-smoking and anti-DUI campaigns of recent decades. Make driving unpopular.

    Result: driving becomes less appealing.

  5. Hold automakers, fossil energy companies, and motorists responsible for the externalities of petroleum use (e.g. pollution deaths, property damage due to climate change).

    Result: the expense weakens the auto industry, raises the price of petroleum, and encourages greater transport efficiency. The victims of climate change are compensated for their real economic losses.

  6. In U.S. (and everywhere else where petroleum is cheap) raise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel to match those in Europe.

    Result: driving becomes more expensive and less practical.

  7. Fully fund public transit, especially rail. Focus on intra-city transit (e.g. SF MUNI) over commuter rail (e.g. BART or Caltrain) but promote both when possible. Develop high speed rail for long distance travel. Use a hub and spoke model for bus lines, incorporating computers, GPS, and mobile phones into their scheduling so that buses are always full.

    Result: commuters do not need to drive to get to work.

  8. Invent lightweight, protective exoskeletons for cyclists to make bicycling safer, even at relatively high speeds (>60 kph). Promote electric-assist bicycles that are faster and can cover more varied terrain than pedal power alone.

    Result: bicycling is safer, faster, easier, and thus more appealing. Bicycles and related technologies replace cars for most short to medium distance trips.

  9. Faster broadband (>100 Mbps) makes working from home totally seamless. High quality videoconferencing replaces most meetings.

    Result: the need to commute to work is eliminated for many, along with a good percentage of auto trips.

  10. E-commerce expands to include almost all shopping. People only go to the store for specialty items. Webvan (or the modern equivalent) is reborn. Delivery is handled either by the Post Office or by dedicated firms (FedEx or UPS) so you get a single delivery with many items. The fuel efficiency of trucks is improved and they can run on biodiesel if necessary.

    Result: the inefficiencies of shopping malls are eliminated. People conduct commerce within walking distance or through the Internet, rendering a large percentage of car trips unnecessary.

  11. Build urban neighborhoods and communities. Promote neighborhood watch groups, community gardening, and neighborhood cohesiveness. Allow the suburbs to revert back to small towns or cities.

    Result: people have more to do near their homes and fewer reasons to physically leave the neighborhood. Communities thrive and people are happier. Crime declines and quality of life improves.

This plan is a work in progress and I welcome more ideas for the transition to a car-free future.

Update (8 November 2005): Remarkably, not everyone is in complete agreement that the private automobile should be eliminated. The car-defenders include Jalopnik, who writes, "Car lovers, know thy enemy." My plan is also cited by The Auto Prophet, who calls me, "A car hating greenie with socialist tendencies and a fetish for bicycles." The Auto Prophet may not be without socialist tendencies himself: I hear his car is Swedish.

Others do not hate my plan. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at Sustainablog comments that although, "A few of these concepts seem unworkable and even a little bizarre . . . a combination of some of the more practical ones could have positive effects." Eric at Long live the network opines, "What i really liked was, exoskeletons for bikers." However, I think he was envisioning the exoskeleton as some kind of power-assist device, as opposed to protective gear. I should have been a little more clear on that.

Update (10 November 2005): J G Halmayr at Ride is writing a thoughtful, point-by-point critique of my plan. I am commenting on his rebuttals and revising my points as he exposes weaknesses in them.

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